I read a story in The Times that said Japanese people are beginning to take professional lessons in smiling as they are worried they have forgotten how since the pandemic. The paper reports:
It is only this week that Japan declared a final end to coronavirus restrictions — but most people are still covering their faces in public, even when outside. Having concealed their mouths for so long, some people believe they have lost the ability to smile convincingly and are turning to professionals for help.
One of the people helping retrain people to smile said, ‘I meet many people who say they aren’t good at smiling, but it’s all about the muscles, and we have to use and train them in order to get good at it. Just as you might exercise your arms, exercising your expressive muscles is so important.’
It sounds silly, doesn’t it, forgetting how to smile. It sounds weird to retrain ourselves to do it effectively. But there is clearly something legitimate in the need to exercise particular muscles, even facial expressive ones. There is truth in the old adage that we must use it or lose it.
This principle almost certainly holds for the Christian life. There are some basic things in churches that we can neglect to do for a whole host of reasons. Not doing them for some time can lead us to forget how to do them altogether. Worse, as we forget how to do some of these basic things, they may have a knock on impact on everything else we might hope to do.
I think this was particularly true in the aftermath of the pandemic. Exercising those welcoming visitor muscles and getting back into the swing of reaching out with the gospel are some of the obvious examples. We hadn’t exercised those muscles for so long that we had almost forgotten how to use them.
But these things are not unique to the pandemic. I think churches can get into particular modes of operating and find that they just don’t do certain things because of how they have developed. There may sometimes even be a recognition that these things are not as they ought to be. The problem is, the muscle has been out of use for so long, they have forgotten how to exercise whatever it is.
I think there are two basic things that we can do to rectify the issue. First, and most obviously, we can start to exercise the muscle again. Just like when you have been bed ridden for a while, getting up and walking is pretty shaky to start with. We will have to accept that our early steps back into doing what we need to do might be a bit shaky. But unless we take those first shaky steps, we will never get back to doing it at all and may atrophy. Ultimately, we do just have to get up and start exercising those muscles again, however ropey things may seem when we first begin.
Second, just as some people employ personal trainers, we can call in a bit of help. There is no shame going to another church who are doing what you know you ought to be doing but haven’t for a while. Give them a call. Ask them to talk you through what they do. Ask them to come and be your personal trainer for a bit. Once you get the hang of the exercise, you can dispense with their help and get on with it yourself. But there is no harm in asking someone to support you while you take your first shaky steps seeking to exercise those muscles again.
Let’s be honest, we might a look a bit silly at first. Just as learning how to smile again might look a bit odd, shaky legs and a personal trainer to teach us what we learnt when we were toddlers will look silly. But what new activity that we haven’t mastered doesn’t! Anyone who has ever tried to learn a new language will tell you they sound stupid, like toddlers, until they have got quite a bit further. Lots of things we deem valuable take practice and few of us will master immediately what most people need to learn and continually practice in order to be deemed remotely competent. The same is true for churches. We can’t expect to master immediately what only comes through practice and experience.
There will always be areas of ministry in our churches that are more in danger of atrophy than others. We have to be aware of them and seek to exercise those muscles. We must be conscious of them because if we don’t use those muscles, we are in danger of losing them.